Tiny Faith

In the world of early childhood education, there are inevitably a variety of personalities that begin to emerge early on in life; there is no greater space to discover if a kid will be a challenger or a people pleaser than a preschool classroom. Every year that I taught Pre-K, I had students who struggled to follow the rules, these were often the ones who needed a bit more attention and guidance. Occasionally, as I was trying to establish a rule in my classroom, I would implement an extra special sticker chart to help motivate those students who consistently needed reminders of what to do or how to do it. “Ms. Kello,” a student exclaimed, “I put up my puzzle! Do I get a sticker?!?” To which I had to dash his hopes and bring him back to reality that doing what is expected of you is not something worthy of an extra reward. This seems to be the type of thing to which Jesus is responding in today’s gospel lesson.

Here, we get a slice of some pieced together sayings from Jesus that speak to what it means to be a disciple. Just before this is the command to forgive those who have wronged you again and again and again, and we pick up this week with the apostles’ earnest plea and response to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” But in a somewhat confusing response, Jesus seems to offer a vailed, but piercing critique: if you had the tiniest bit of faith, you could do more than you imagine. And before we can even observe the apostles’ response to this, Luke moves on to another saying of Jesus, that speaks to the reality of those whose lives are dedicated in service, and how to fulfill commands is not about reward.

And although this passage is short, both of the sayings in our text today have been used to harm people for centuries, so it is important for me to talk about what these sayings are not. The first, Jesus’ critique of the apostle’s lack of faith, has been used to shame people for not having enough faith; there is a narrative in some Christian circles that if you have enough faith or if you are a good enough Christian then nothing bad will happen to you, but Jesus’ hyperbolic statement used here to make a point is not a guarantee that a faithful life will be without pain, but rather than even the tiniest bit of faith can yield more than we can imagine. The second half of today’s text was often used by anti-abolitionist as a pro-slavery proof text, in which they claimed that slavery was God ordained and Christ approved, and that slaves ought to do what they were told without asking for a reward. And while the housing code of the first century used slavery, and to call it servanthood is to sterilize it, it is without comparison in our modern understanding. Nevertheless, this passage is not about the divine approval of enslaving other humans for unjust work.

So what does this passage have to say to us if we take a step back from the ways in which it has been abused within the history of Christianity? Well, let’s start at the beginning of our passage: the apostles request for an increased faith. This request follows after Jesus’ instruction for the disciples to continually forgive those who have harmed them and instruction to never cause another to stumble and sin. It is a request not out of selfish desire or ulterior motives, but one that arises from a place of deeply felt reality of what it looks and feels like to continually live into these difficult teachings. Jesus responds that even a tiny bit of faith, even as tiny as a mustard seed, is more than enough and that discipleship is not about reward.

All of us in our lives of faith have a mixed faith; sometimes we are people of deep faith and other times there are failures. We, like the apostles, are a bit of both. Jesus’ response, it seems, is less of a critique of their current faith, but more about what is the point of faith? What is faith at its core other than a deep, abiding trust. This trust develops over time like a skill or a muscle, and to be granted more faith may not actually be what the disciples needed as they were trying to live into Jesus’ teachings about what it means to follow him.

Does more faith, does more trust in God or a deeper relationship with the one who created us, make discipleship any easier? The response of the apostles comes after a difficult and challenging teaching of Jesus, if Jesus had granted the apostles’ request for more faith, would that have made it any easier to follow the command to forgive? Jesus’ response seems to be a response that highlights that what the apostles aren’t in need of more faith, because even a little bit of faith is enough, and an abundance won’t make their lives of discipleship any easier than a small bit. With faith, we who are disciples of Christ can do what seems impossible as a mulberry tree uprooting itself and planting itself in the middle of the sea.

Faith is not a noun, something that we hold or have, it is a living, growing thing. It is a part of us, a spiritual muscle that is used and developed over time as we try to follow the Christ. As you think back over your life of faith, what have been your moments of faithfulness that seem as insignificant as a seed or as magnificent as a tree uprooting and replanting in the middle of the sea? We can assume that faithfulness always looks like the replanted mulberry tree, but sometimes faithfulness is a tiny seed, which can be easily overlooked. Sometimes faithfulness is a quite prayer in the middle of a restless night or helping someone who is lost or being mindful of others.

The gospel according to Luke is full of stories of people who unexpectedly have an abundant faith, in your own life’s narrative where have you had these moments of unexpected faithfulness? Because faith is doing what needs doing, and God is with us and empowers us to live a life of faith. So, what does discipleship and faithfulness look like in your own life? How can you go out this week, in light of the reality that with faith in God, you can have more of an impact than you can even imagine? How might it change the everyday parts of your life? How might it change how you come to God in prayer? What if we leaned fully into the truth that God can do more with our imperfect faith than we can ask or imagine? What might it lead to in your own life or in our common life here at Christ Church. So, go; go out with your tiny, mustard seed faith and see what God can do through you.

A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky for Proper 22C, Luke 17:5-10 on October 6, 2019. 

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